Jan De Smet
Redefining the relationship between the local and the international might be more urgent than ever. After 30 years of global capitalism the consequences are visible everywhere; a growing gap between the rich and the poor, the acceleration of climate change and the differences between modes of access and mobility according to where you are born. At the same time, the solution doesn’t lie in a complete retreat within our local contexts. Certain challenges – like environmental issues, migration and economic exchange – have to be discussed on an international level as well.
How does an international performing arts festival such as the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (KFDA) position itself among these challenges and tensions, which inevitably also have an impact on the arts and the circulation of artists? In 1994, curator Frie Leysen created the cosmopolitan city festival out of a desire to bring international performing arts to Brussels and to overthrow cultural, national and linguistic borders. Through the unique collaboration with different Flemish and French institutions, the festival historically wants to contribute to a dialogue between the different communities in the city, which increasingly exceed the opposition Dutch / French. Being a nomadic institution, having no venue of its own, KFDA operates as a mediator that connects different cultural players in the city.
Under the direction of Frie Leysen (1994-2006), and her successor Christoph Slagmuylder (2006-2018), KFDA introduced a new generation of local and international artists to the diverse Brussels public, such as Toshiki Okada, Bruno Beltrão, Milo Rau, El Conde de Torrefiel, Kris Verdonck and Ula Sickle. Following the tendency of artists to work across many disciplines, the scope of the program was broadened to visual arts and cinema and projects in public space became more and more important.
Inspired by this rich heritage, the desire to heighten the relationship with the city is fundamental to the mission of the new curators, Dries Douibi and Daniel Blanga Gubbay. In what way can a festival like KFDA be an exercise in sustainability on the one hand and international solidarity on the other? Daniel Blanga Gubbay worked as a researcher and freelance curator within the performing arts before. He was the initiator and curator of Aleppo, a Brussels platform for public programs through theory and artistic interventions. In 2017, he started working as a programmer for the Kunstenfestivaldesarts after being involved in the discursive program for a couple of years. Before leading the KFDA, Dries Douibi worked as a dramaturg with many artists such as Jozef Wouters, Kate McIntosh, Milo Rau and Louis Vanhaverbeke. Between 2013 and 2018, he co-curated the Bâtard Festival together with choreographer Michiel Vandevelde and for the last two years he was responsible for the performing arts program at Beursschouwburg.
ETC What does it mean to lead an international festival at this moment and in this city?
Daniel Blanga Gubbay For us it is not only the question: what is an international festival today? But specifically: what is an international festival in Brussels today? We imagined this festival with the complexities of this city in mind. Its changing face, its topography that is not only present on the level of audiences but also on the level of institutions and the diversity of initiatives that are emerging from all the different groups that are present in the city.
One other important issue for us was: how to break the opposition between the local and the international? How can we think of these as two parameters through which we look at projects? How can you start from the specificity of the territory and still be very open to the international?
Dries Douibi So, you can’t continue without rethinking some of the basic principles of the festival. KFDA never had venues itself, so it was always based on fragile relationships with existing institutions. Historically these are institutions of the French- and Flemish-speaking communities that have collaborated with KFDA for many years. So one of the tasks that we have in front of us is to reach out to new institutions, because the ones KFDA used to collaborate with are of course not the only communities active in Brussels at the moment. So how can we share the making of the festival with other institutions that are maybe not yet considered part of the art scene and often labeled as cultural institutions?
ETC Who are these communities and institutions you are talking about?
D.D. Brussels knows many cultures. There is a big Portuguese community, a Congolese community, a Brazilian community, a Moroccan community. And another big community is the European community which, like any community, is not one-dimensional but multi-layered.
It consists of people who are not called migrants but expats and who also initiate self-organized events. At the same time they form one of the most isolated communities in Brussels.
It is fragile because an institution like KFDA has the power to appropriate certain initiatives, so it’s not easy to reach out on a sincere level. We therefore also see it as a long-term project, or a long-term conversation that we started the day we took this job. Results can only come after many years. We want to be humble in how we communicate about this, because there is the risk that we could capitalize on cultural organizations that have been developed over many years, often without financial support and little recognition.
“One of the tasks that we have in front of us is to reach out to new institutions, because the ones KFDA used to collaborate with are of course not the only communities active in Brussels at the moment.” (Dries Douibi)
D.B.G. A crucial shift for us is not to look at these communities as a potential new audience. The romanticized idea that from the margins of a so-called culture you bring people into the cultural life, is a very problematic discourse. Therefore, we want to work with institutions that have been founded by the different communities in Brussels. It is about acknowledging what is already there. It’s not a matter of simply bringing new audiences to KFDA, but also in displacing the festival elsewhere and seeing how it can be present in other venues and cultural houses. The festival is not only a host but a guest: we feel the necessity for a more humble approach. It is fantastic if we can find mutual ground to do a project together, but KFDA is not the only, nor ultimate, event that has to happen in the city.
ETC You were speaking about how international artists could come in contact with the very specific cultural and artistic environment of Brussels: could you give an example of this?
D.B.G. This year we’re going to run a project called the Free School, which is a pedagogical platform in which we organize an accessible series of workshops for 10 days given by artists.
With this project we want to acknowledge that more and more artists consider the sharing of a practice as an artistic gesture. This is a long-term project. Every year the festival will transform itself into a temporary school. People have the opportunity to follow one workshop or several. Within the Free School we are busy connecting international artists to the specificity of the local situation, and trying to see how some projects can go beyond the temporality of the festival.
To give two examples: We’re working with Gérald Kurdian who is doing a workshop on science-fiction for young car-makers, with whom he writes speculative fictions for the future. Together they question what kind of human relations are desirable for the future. We approached a school for car mechanics and the reaction was so positive that they were asking if it was possible to keep this as a long-term trajectory.
“The question is: what is possible for an artist within the festival that would not be possible outside of it?” (Daniel Blanga Gubbay)
The second example is artist Christian Nyampeta who comes from Rwanda and has a project that is called Ecole-du-soir. In Rwanda and central-Africa the cinema was often called this. His project re-questions how we write history and what has been marginalized within it. He works with songs, fragments of movies, poetry – sources that are usually not considered as instruments to write history with. The aim is to collectively rewrite history through the analysis of these resources coming mostly from central-Africa. Christian Nyampeta asked us to do the project on a long-term basis. So the question was: how can we keep this practice sustainable during the year? How, as a festival, can we be sustainable beyond the event-hood, and offer the long-term engagement that this kind of practice requires?
D.D. Christian Nyampeta’s desire to be engaged long-term within Brussels also has to do with his personal research on Rwanda. There are a lot of books, history and documentation present in the city, representing the old colonial power that Belgium once was. This interests him, as his project is about translating and opening up knowledge that has been silenced.
D.B.G. For Ecole-du-Soir we suggested collaborations with groups whose mission resonates very specifically with the practice of Christian, in reaffirming and rewriting colonial histories.
D.D. For us the idea that it always has to come from the artist and the art project is not the only model. Instead of an artist saying, ‘I have a project that needs to be inhabited by this specific community’ or ‘I am looking for five people who are younger than 18’, it is important for us to rethink the direction of where the question is coming from. If a new institution expresses an interest in collaborating with a certain artist, this is something we would also like to facilitate. Of course, there can be an artistic necessity, but there are also urgencies within the city that are important to support as well.
Without wanting to change the whole economy that is currently present in local and international productions, we would like to diversify the different economies that could take part.
ETC Is there actually an advantage to having a three-week festival? Or would you ideally be a long-term institution? It seems you’re mostly struggling with its temporary character…
D.D. It is an extreme luxury to prepare something for one year that is only visible for three weeks. We are one of the more important producing companies in the performing arts field in Belgium, but we do not have to produce ourselves all the time. Also, we are rooted in the idea of collaboration, so that means it is crucial to get to know our old and new collaborating partners and their relationship to the city better. In addition to our own three weeks, we have more than a year to focus on others.
Another advantage for me is that a festival is a state of exception and therefore we can experiment with different formats. For me the Free School is a good example. Such a structure is way easier to realize in a festival context (even though, as I said before, we also initiate longer trajectories within the Free School).
D.B.G. It is indeed an advantage of being able to play with the intensity of the festival. To construct a dramaturgy by putting projects together in a very short period. Instead of focusing on one work, you imagine the multiple experiences that are created by echoes in the blank spaces between one and the other. It is potentially a very rich architecture of experiences where you leave enough space, but at the same time create possibilities for discourse to emerge.
D.D. A festival can adapt itself to other people’s rhythms. If we were a house, for example, we would always have to invite someone into our rhythm. But now we are more flexible in allowing other rhythms to co-exist next to each other. One of the first questions that we ask our former and new partners is: ‘We have the chance to collaborate in May to create something that would otherwise not be possible: what would it be and how can we realize this together?’
ETC You speak a lot about the importance of local institutions, what about the role of local artists within the festival?
D.B.G. Kunstenfestivaldesarts should continue to support artists living in Brussels, as it does this year with artists such as Mette Edvardsen, Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere. The field in Brussels changed a lot in the last few years, and we have more and more venues that program during the year things that you could consider international. It’s not a question of profiling but of the kinds of projects we need to support. Very often local artists are already being supported by venues here. And then the question is: what is possible for an artist within the festival that would not be possible outside of it?
D.D. I think the balance between local and international artists within the history of the festival was always more or less the same, but somehow the perception from the outside is that the festival has become more and more international. This is probably because there is more internationalization happening within Brussels. There is a very wide scene of artists coming from very diverse backgrounds who you could consider international artists but that are locally based. One of the strengths of Brussels, comparing it to other cities, is that the language you speak is not so relevant.
D.B.G. We might often work with local artists that are already linked to institutions within the cultural scene in Brussels. A potential role of the festival is to sometimes make these artists travel inside a city, where the audiences and artists affiliated to Flemish- and French-speaking institutions are very divided. So, what does it mean, for example, to use the platform of the festival to present an artist that traditionally was more subsidized and presented by Flemish institutions in a French speaking institution? This was the case last year with Alma Söderberg, who was presented at La Raffinerie, or this year, Ersan Mondtag – for his first Belgian co-production with the festival and NTGent – presented at Théâtre National. The structure of KFDA allows a circulation of audiences and can offer the possibility for programmers, networks and spectators related to the French speaking scene to get to know an artist that has been living in the city for ten years, but that they have never encountered before and vice versa.
D.D. Being an exception, you can be the one that disrupts the habitual rhythms. You can rethink the geography of the city and with that establish different kinds of relationships, both from the perspective of an artist and of an institution.
ETC Until now we have been talking a lot about how the international is already deeply rooted and present in Brussels, but I presume you are also going abroad a lot yourself? What does it mean to travel nowadays? Can you be local and mobile at the same time? And in what ways can you make your presence in other international contexts sustainable?
D.D. The direction consists of three people, two of which are responsible for the artistic program. Our co-director Sophie is always present in Brussels and has a history of operating within a network organization responsible for the cooperation of different art institutions in Brussels. So she is constantly maintaining close relationships with all the institutions. Daniel and I alternate. When Daniel is travelling, I stay and vice versa. It is one of the benefits of being co-directors, as we can share responsibilities across the team. A lot of effort is put into maintaining existing relationships and establishing new ones with different partners. So we travel, but one of us is always here in order to follow what is happening locally. Without knowing our local context, the international work wouldn’t make any sense.
D.B.G. We are indeed travelling and, just like for everyone in the field, this raises a fundamental question about the sustainability of the system in general. But although we still travel a lot, I have the impression that the discovery of novelty, that is very often present in the context of international festivals, is of less and less importance to us. We are more and more interested in the possibility of new practices that we can offer to artists that might already be known. How can we make new formats possible? The discovery of the new name is only one parameter among many others.
D.D. We increasingly avoid the international platforms that everybody flies to. When we travel, we try to be able to stay longer in order to understand a scene better. Not so much for the sake of discovery but to establish institutional relationships and avoid the trap of cherry picking the best project. One of the attractions this festival has for me is that there is the time to do research to establish more sustainable relationships with parts of the world that are not Europe.
ETC Are you specifically focusing on parts of the world outside Europe?
D.D. It is de definitely important to present artistic work from Europe as well, but I think that – with all the challenges and risks that come along with it – it is currently very important to collaborate with partners that are outside of Europe.
ETC How do you decide which places in the world to focus on? How do you choose if you, in principle, could go to the entire world?
D.D. We live in Brussels, which is, culturally speaking, one of the most diverse cities in the world. Obviously, the choice of where you are focusing your research is subjective, but we let ourselves be influenced by the complex composition of the city. Brussels is a melting pot, not least in the arts world where a lot of institutions are dealing with international work. Through different encounters locally and internationally you try to understand better where it would be interesting to navigate to next. From there you continue your research, contact people, write emails and prepare your travels.
D.B.G. A fundamental question for us is: why do you program internationally? Because what to do with the risk of exotification? For me it is not about the curiosity to present a faraway perspective here in Brussels. How do you decide which places in the world to focus on? How do you choose if you, in principle, could go to the entire world?
I would fund the idea of a collection that represents the world a problematic one. However, today we live in a world where information circulates globally. Very often the media presents a very reductive portrait of some parts of the world. If we take life in Tehran as an example, it would be impossible to claim that its perception is absent in Brussels. There is an already existing perception of non-European countries that is very often stereotyped. So inviting artists from outside of Europe reminds us of the complexities of identities that cannot be reduced.
“One of the strengths of Brussels, comparing it to other cities, is that the language you speak is not so relevant.” (Dries Douibi)
ETC Do you give special attention to the way non-European work is being presented? Is contextualization important?
D.D. Every work or presentation is treated in the same way. Everything gets the same kind of contextualization. We commission a text for each project that is especially written for the work and we don’t make a distinction between European or non-European projects. It’s impossible to predict what information the audience already has when they enter a performance, what their references are, where they are coming from. The danger of exotification also lies in giving a work more contextualization than it needs.
ETC Do you sometimes experience work which you feel you are lacking the knowledge or references to be able to grasp?
D.B.G. Yes that happens. But that might also happen in Belgian productions as well.
D.D. And not to romanticize but it can also be very interesting to be confronted with something that reaches beyond your existing frame of reference.
ETC Could it be a reason to invite a work?
D.D. Yes of course.
ETC Is the risk of exotification not bigger when you invite something that you do not really find accessible?
D.D. We would never invite such a work only based on seeing the work. It is always also grounded in a conversation and research. You never invite something on the basis of not-knowing. You always start investigating in order to understand a work better.
ETC In the last years KFDA as a festival developed such a status that it almost became an arbiter of taste within the international performance field. Listening to you I get the feeling that you are moving away from ‘the next big thing’ to focus more on research, conversations and exchange between different institutions (both locally and internationally). Do you fear that all this work might not be visible enough? Is there a danger in losing the support that is needed to sustain this festival? Is the time ripe to invite people into this other way of directing a festival or is it a risky undertaking?
D.D. Your description portrays us as more radical than we are right now. But it is indeed one of the reasons we took on this challenge. We were probably chosen to do it because of this interest. The landscape locally and internationally has changed a lot. Locally there are dynamic art institutions who are taking over the work that the festival had been doing for quite some time. Internationally there are a lot of these ‘taste-making festivals’ that we value and with whom we have good relationships. These developments offered us the luxury to head in a different direction.
D.B.G. These two poles you are describing – presenting new works versus research and exchange – are not necessarily in opposition to each other. It is not about either doing research or making sharp curatorial choices. The current established position of the festival allows for a more experimental approach, and our application came at a moment where this could happen. This is a very interesting position, because when an institution is not going so well, you have to find short-term solutions. For us, instead of thinking about being successful or not successful, it is about the luxury of having the time to invest in long-term change. For me the long term and the short term are the main parameters that we are currently using.
ETC We have spoken a lot about possible partners, institutions, artists, locally and internationally. So maybe to conclude: for whom are you making this festival at the moment? Is there already the beginning of an answer to this question?
D.B.G. If we go back to the history of this festival and why it was created, it was about bringing together different communities. We feel that this is very urgent again today in the current landscape of Brussels and the evolution of its demography. Without having the pretension that this festival has to interest everybody, there is a necessity to try to bridge the gap between the demography of the city of Brussels, the demography of the audience of the festival, and of the institution. The question for us is not only: for whom is this festival mounted? But also: with and by whom is the festival mounted? And: who has the possibility of imagining it?